As Donald Trump tries to bounce back from a disappointing night, he has to battle an emerging media narrative that what happened at Hofstra was a turning point.
Actually, plenty of candidates have gone on to win after a first-debate flop, including Barack Obama in 2012, George W. Bush in 2004 and Ronald Reagan in 1984.
But Trump and his campaign missed a huge opportunity against Hillary Clinton, who would have outpointed him even if she hadn’t benefited from one-sided questioning by Lester Holt.
Trump is half-right in his criticism of the NBC moderator. Holt asked him five fact-checking questions and Clinton none. Holt interrupted Trump 41 times, and Clinton seven. His only question to Clinton about the email scandal was asking if she wanted to respond after Trump brought it up.
At the same time, Holt’s questions to Trump—about his tax returns, early stand on Iraq, crusade on birtherism—were not unfair, as Trump contends. Whether or not he was off base in his challenge to Trump on stop-and-frisk policies, it’s the moderator’s right to follow up. The unfairness was in the lack of comparable aggressiveness in the questioning of Clinton.
But the problem for Trump is that a candidate who complains about the moderator, fairly or unfairly, can be portrayed as whiny. The same goes for what Trump saying that he had a mic problem—though one journalists in the hall told me that seemed true—and suggesting it was intentional.
What’s also not helpful is for Trump is getting diverted into side issues. In an interview with “Fox & Friends,” the candidate responded to Hillary having raised his past spat with a former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado. “She was the worst we ever had,” Trump said yesterday. “She was the winner, and she gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem. We had a problem with her.”
The Clinton camp, not surprisingly, had Machado available for a press call.
I also don’t think it’s effective for Trump, in post-debate interviews, to say he could have brought up Bill Clinton’s infidelities at Hofstra but chose not to. It was awkward when he said it at the debate, and now it sounds like he’s saying it without quite saying it. If he wants to bring it up at the second debate, fine. But it’s not helping him drive a message right now.
We can all nitpick the debate performances. Clinton had missed opportunities as well. When Holt asked her if the police are biased against blacks, she made no effort to defend the overwhelming majority of careful and honest officers, instead saying that we all need to examine ourselves for implicit bias.
But no matter what Trump’s level of debate prep, it’s striking he didn’t have better answers prepared on birtherism, Iraq and his refusal to release his tax returns. Much of the public doesn’t care as much as the media whether Trump discloses the returns. But when he says he can’t because of an audit—but would if Clinton released her deleted emails—it sounds like his decision is purely tactical.
The race remains tight, and it’s unlikely that Clinton will suddenly open up a sizable lead. Trump did nothing to turn off his supporters, who like his rough-and-tumble approach and his message about throwing out the incompetent bums.
But he did nothing to expand his base during those 90 minutes on Long Island, and that’s an opportunity he can’t get back.